Politics·Analysis

As 2023 dawns, Canada's top soldier confronts a long list of worst-case scenarios

It might be a stretch to describe Gen. Wayne Eyre as a modern Cassandra. Still, over the latter half of 2022, Canada's top military commander delivered — in public and before House of Commons committees — increasingly stark warnings about the future geopolitical landscape, where the war between Russia and Ukraine could go and the intentions of other disruptive international actors, such as China.

The world passed a geopolitical 'turning point' in 2022, says Gen. Wayne Eyre

The world is at a ‘turning point’ — is Canada’s military ready?

26 days ago
Duration 6:02
Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre believes we are witnessing a turning point in the global order and worries about the military’s capacity to respond if the war in Ukraine escalates beyond its borders.

It might be a stretch to describe Gen. Wayne Eyre as a modern Cassandra.

Still, over the latter half of 2022, Canada's top military commander delivered — in public and before House of Commons committees — increasingly stark warnings about the future geopolitical landscape, where the war between Russia and Ukraine could go and the intentions of other disruptive international actors, such as China.

Whether he's been disbelieved or dismissed — like the Trojan priestess of Greek mythology — has depended largely on his audience.

Last October, he told a Commons committee that the West was already "at war with China and Russia" and that the two global powers were out to remake their world in their own political image.

During a separate appearance before a different panel of MPs, he warned that Canada's hold on its Arctic archipelago is "tenuous" in the face of great power competition.

There's just not enough Canadian Forces to be able to do everything- Gen. Wayne Eyre

It's almost unprecedented to hear a Canadian chief of the defence staff speak publicly in such uncompromising terms.

"This has been a year like no other in my career," Eyre, who has spent 34 years in uniform in deployments all over the world, told CBC News in a year-end interview.

"And I think history will view this year as a turning point in the global order."

In an interesting departure from his previous remarks, Eyre delivered a decidedly more mainstreet argument for why the skeptical or uninterested should still care about the unravelling of the geopolitical consensus that has held the world together since the end of the Cold War.

"We need to be concerned because our national prosperity is based on the stability in the existing order," Eyre said. "And if we can't defer or deter and defend that, or if we can't work with our friends, partners and allies to create stability in that order, we're going to suffer."

The supply chain disruptions and soaring energy and food prices — driven by rampant inflation triggered by the onset of major hostilities between Ukraine and Russia last winter — could be just a taste of what lies ahead, Eyre suggested.

A woman picks up debris inside a building, surrounded by pieces of concrete and a damaged window.
A woman who identified herself as Svetlana removes debris from a ward of a hospital hit by Russian shelling in Donetsk. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

As Ukraine settles in for a long, brutal winter war, the country's allies — including Canada — have spent the last few weeks trying to catch their breath and take stock of how the world changed — perhaps irreversibly — in 2022.

In early December, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned during an interview with Norwegian broadcaster NRK that there was a "real possibility" of the war in Ukraine escalating into a full-blown conflict between the western military alliance and Russia.

Canada would be called on to join its allies in such a case.

For years, the Canadian public has been bombarded with conflicting (and occasionally toxic) messages — some of them political — about the state of the military, its equipment and its leadership.

Even members of Parliament seem confused about the roles the Canadian Armed Forces is capable of playing. For proof, look no further than the Commons committee debate last fall about how involved the military should be in domestic emergencies.

Defence Minister Anita Anand, right, walks with Gen. Wayne Eyre, chief of defence staff, as they attend an announcement in Halifax on Friday, Nov.18, 2022. Halifax has been selected to be the host of NATO's North American regional office for defence innovation.
Defence Minister Anita Anand, right, walks with Gen. Wayne Eyre, chief of defence staff, as they attend an announcement in Halifax on Friday, Nov.18, 2022. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Successive governments have piled more responsibilities on the military, forcing it into unconventional roles — such as backstopping pandemic-ravaged nursing homes in two provinces — at a time when recruitment numbers have been falling like a stone.

The latest item to be added to the military's to-do list will figure more prominently in the coming year. It's the Liberal government's plan to be more involved militarily in the Indo-Pacific region by deploying an additional frigate and undertaking security force training in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

"I am concerned about our capacity writ large, given the significant number of demands around the world. And there's just not enough Canadian Forces to be able to do everything," Eyre said.

Canada has been nominally engaged in the region already, with sail-pasts through the contested Taiwan Strait and missions to enforce sanctions against North Korea.

WATCH | Eyre's warnings 'probably a little overstated,' says predecessor

Gen. Wayne Eyre's warnings 'probably a little overstated,' says predecessor

26 days ago
Duration 9:05
"There is something else at play here that is really grave and important to Gen. Eyre," said retired general Tom Lawson, who served as chief of the defence staff from 2012-2015. "The main responsibility of every chief of defence is ... to make sure that the Canadian military has enough people, the appropriate numbers of people, that they are equipped to an appropriate level and that they are trained and providing the readiness that the government may need."

'It's a zero-sum game'

The new government strategy formalizes and increases that involvement — sending a signal to China — at a time when the Canadian military is increasing its commitment to reassurance missions in Eastern Europe meant to keep Russia at bay. At last summer's NATO leaders summit, Canada agreed to put more resources into the battlegroup it leads in Latvia to make it a brigade-sized force.

Meeting all of those commitments will make the balancing act Eyre and other senior leaders face even more precarious. It will mean, he said, taking great care in deciding which kinds of ships and aircraft to send on missions. For example, he said, frigate deployments could be swapped out for minesweepers in some cases.

Eyre calls it a "targeted" approach. But doesn't that amount to robbing Peter to pay Paul?

"Well, it's a zero-sum game, and we have to find a way of paying both Peter and Paul, but perhaps not as much," he said.

Gen. Wayne Eyre sits down with CBC News for a year-end interview on Dec. 7, 2022.
Gen. Wayne Eyre sits down with CBC News for a year-end interview on Dec. 7, 2022. He said the military's long list of responsibilities means it must be smart about how it deploys its resources. (CBC News)

Eyre said there's no silver bullet solution to this dilemma. He noted how in 2022 he ordered all non-essential activity to cease to allow the military to concentrate on its core responsibilities and said that, in certain circumstances, "we're saying 'no' … in terms of taking on new tasks."

That might be easier said than done, given the global instability Eyre has warned about.

The war in Ukraine has forced the Canadian military to part with some essential equipment, such as ammunition, howitzers and anti-tank weapons. It also put the spotlight on critical deficiencies, such as Canada's lack of ground-based anti-aircraft systems and weapons to counter drones.

Ukrainian service members fire a shell from a M777 Howitzer in Kharkiv Region, Ukraine on July 21, 2022. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

There are urgent procurement efforts underway to replace donated gear and cover those critical gaps, Eyre said.

Those procurements involve acquiring air defences, counter-drone technology, better electronic warfare equipment (jammers) and new anti-tank weapons, such as the U.S.-manufactured Javelins which have proven decisive for Ukrainians on the battlefield.

The word "urgent" is a relative term in defence contracting in Canada. Eyre said the new equipment cannot arrive fast enough.

"I wish we had it yesterday," he said.

One piece of donated equipment is proving difficult to replace. Earlier this year, Canada gave Ukraine four of its three dozen M-777 towed artillery pieces — weapons the manufacturer no longer makes. British defence contractor BAE Systems said it's considering whether to restart the production line.

'What did we do in 1939?'

Eyre said he has challenged planners at the Department of National Defence to think about worst-case scenarios and to draw from the experiences of the past.

"I often challenged the team to look at history. What did we do in 1939?" he said, referring to the beginning of the Second World War.

"We had to grow a Canadian military from several thousand to, I think, at the end of the day, we had six years later 600,000. How did we do that? How were we able to arm them? What risks were involved?"

When asked whether Canada was ready to fight along its allies if the worst happens in 2023, Eyre hedged and qualified his response. It depends, he said, on "who's your enemy and who are your friends" and what kind of technology is involved.

Some of those worst-case scenarios keep him up at night.

"I have grave concerns, not only about the capabilities we have [but] the ability to sustain them in terms of ammunition, in terms of spare parts and in terms of people," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now